by Lynne Jackson
ALBANY: A virtual book signing for Son of Mountains by Yassin Aref was the topic for the May Save the Pine Bush vegetarian/vegan lasagna dinner. Yassin, along with Mohammed Hossain, were subject of an FBI sting operation and were sent to prison for 15 years each. During the five months Yassin was awaiting sentencing, he wrote Son of Mountains in the Rensselaer County Jail. Carl Strock, Daily Gazette columnist said “Incredibly, Yassin Aref has written a book, and in English, no less. I say incredibly because he wrote it in the Rensselaer County Jail when I would have been a quivering wreck, unable to string three words together in my own language, much less in someone else’s.”
Steve Downs, the attorney who represents Save the Pine Bush in the hotel case, described how Save the Pine Bush and Yassin Aref, from Kurdistan are alike. On the surface, they seem about as far apart as you can imagine, and in another sense, they are absolutely the same issue. We are talking about justice here. We are talking about the right to be heard. How does a butterfly get heard? How does Yassin get heard? How do the poor people in the world get heard when there are a whole bunch of people out there trying to prevent us from being heard? You all know that feeling, you have been fighting it for 30 years and hopefully we don’t have to fight for 30 years to finally allow the Muslim community to be heard that “we are not terrorists, we are not a threat to anyone. Please listen. Listen to what Mohammed said. Listen to what our community is saying. We care about this country as much as you do. We care about the world as much as you do.” Steve sees the same connection.
Steve says he thinks Yassin sees himself as a romantic poet. Poets in Kurdistan tell the truth and telling the truth is very dangerous in certain parts of the world. But, if you can tell the truth right, you gain respect, and people know, when things are really down, you can go to this person, and he will tell you the truth. That is the kind of person Yassin was. Steve read from his book:
“Because bloody leaders and ignorant dictators like for people to be suffering and struggle, so brutal and inhuman are these leaders corrupt regime that people in the East move from disaster to disaster. For example when you read this story you say its hard to believe you had so much difficulty and suffering. But, if someone from my country were to read this story, he would say, ‘Ah, Yassin! You lived the high life compared to mine.’ The only way to change the situation, to stop the corruption and ignorance and promote peace and prosperity, is for scholars to speak out, tell the truth, and never blindly approve what the rulers do. As Imam …* said, If scholars don’t speak the truth, and people don’t know it, how will the truth ever come out? The Prophet Mohammed, may peace be upon him, said the best Jihad is to say the truth to an unjust ruler.”
At this point, Steve interjected, “I love that. Tell the truth to an unjust ruler.” Steve continued reading, “Let him know how his misrule affects the people and advise him and warn him about what disasters will fall if he does not stop the corruption and replace it with the rule of law. Only when justice replaces this rule will we see peace.” Steve continued, “this kind of resonates with me, somehow. Well, that is Yassin. He is a wonderful, crazy character who is one of the most eloquent people I have ever encountered. I hope you all get a chance to know him as I have, and I hope that you will learn from him that you cannot be sad, that you have to speak out. There are lots of injustices around, and that we must speak out against injustice.”
Shamshad Ahmad, president of the Masjid As-Salam Mosque and professor of physics at the University of Albany spoke about Yassin. He began by stating that Yassin and Mohammed were tricked into a plan by the FBI. The reason was to make society secure. However, neither man engaged in any criminal activity at all. They are each serving a fifteen year prison sentence. Their children are suffering (they have ten children between them), individuals of conscience are suffering, taxpayer money was wasted, this case did no one any good. The book, Son of Mountains is a very good book about Yassin’s life in Kurdistan and is a very interesting read. Yassin came to this country in 1999; Shamshad met him in 2000. Yassin could not speak one word of English. However, within eight months of living here, Yassin gave a speech in English and was soon giving sermons in English. The book does not cover much about his case, Yassin wrote instead about his life.
Jeanne Finley is the volunteer who edited Son of Mountains. Between the conviction and sentencing of the two men, the Muslim Solidarity Committee held vigils outside the court, during winter in very cold weather. During one of the vigils, Steve Downs approached Jeanne, saying that he had heard she was a free-lance editor. and telling her he had a book for her to look at, Yassin’s book, and asked Jeanne if she would tell him what she thought of the book. She was hooked after the first few pages. “Is the book good?” asks Jeanne, and she answers her own question with a big grin and a “Yeahhh!”
The book is self-published, and the process took more than a year. Yassin wrote in English for a Western Audience to get his story out, but, also he wrote the book for his children. Yassin is a writer. He comes from Kurdistan where being a poet is a political act. He writes about his life, about Islam, about his personal quest. Very little of the book is about the FBI sting. The book tells you who Yassin is. We have no concept of what he has lived through. Reading the book suggests the question: Why is this man in prison? In light of having dinner here tonight, Jeanne read a section of the book, where Yassin talks about hunger, and lack of food: “It also made me understand why my mother, whenever she saw a tiny piece of bread on the floor, would quickly pick it up and say, “Astragfiro Ilah,” which means ‘I ask God’s forgiveness for this impiety.’ Then she would kiss the crumb of bread and eat it. “
Kathy Manley is one of Yassin’s attorneys. She has been very involved in Yassin’s appeal, which is before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The oral argument on the appeal was held in New York City in March, and we are waiting for the decision. Kathy also mentioned Mohammed Hossain, the codefendant in the case, and that his wife, Fatima, made the delicious food we are eating tonight. Kathy said that she has had innocent clients before, but no one like Yassin. Yassin is all about speaking truth to power. He is all about complete honesty, about principles, and keeping those principles under the most incredibly difficult circumstances.
There are many aspects to Yassin’s case, including secret evidence and NSA wire-tapping, which Kathy spoke about. Kathy spoke about the prison Yassin is currently. Called the Communication Management Unit, it is in Terre Haute, Indiana where Kathy visited Yassin last summer. It is primarily for Muslims who are convicted of something that isn’t real terrorism, because the real terrorists are kept in the supermax prison in Colorado. Prisoners in the CMU have extremely restricted phone call and visit privileges compared to other federal prisoners. Yassin only gets one 15-minute phone call per week and, unlike in other prisons, he is not allowed contact visits with his children.
Kathy noted Yassin and Mohammed’s case is not isolated. Other Muslims have been entrapped and the cases follow a similar pattern. What has happened to Yassin is not the first time immigrants have been targeted in this country.
Steve mentioned that Yassin sent him an essay, called “In the Shade of the Tree” and describing what Yassin thinks of the environment. The essay was given to everyone attending the dinner in May, and has been reprinted here for everyone to read on page three. Yassin is so pleased that members of Save the Pine Bush are doing something about the environment.
Editor’s note: Son of Mountains can be purchased online at http://www.yassinaref.com and at local bookstores. All of the proceeds of the book go to helping his children. Reading this book will change your life.
Published in the July/August 2008 Newsletter